By Tim Povtak, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 4 2009 1:17AM
ORLANDO -- This was no subtle message the Orlando Magic sent Friday night to the rest of the Eastern Conference.
It was a slap to the face. It was a playoff warning. It was downright impressive.
The Cleveland Cavaliers still have the best record in the NBA. The Boston Celtics are the defending champions. And Dwight Howard can't even get a serious mention in the Most Valuable Player balloting.
Yet it is the Magic today who are puffing their chests and blowing their horns, making it clear who they think will fight their way out of the Eastern Conference and into the NBA Finals in June.
This may be the one team the Cavs can't beat.
"We can play with anyone. We can beat anyone when we play like this," crowed Howard after the Magic crushed the Cavs, 116-87. "Our goal is a championship."
They beat the Celtics last week. They have now twice beaten the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics and Cavaliers, proving that even though they have stayed mostly in the shadows of the glamour teams in this marathon regular season, they expect to topple everyone at the end.
"If we ever got into a series with Cleveland, which I'd love to do, we'd have great confidence going in," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "We have played them well the last two years. We certainly think we would win against them in a series. We've won enough games against good teams that we won't have any problem with confidence."
The Magic have beaten the Cavs eight of the last 11 times they have played, winning this season's series, 2-1. They have dealt the best team in the league its worst drubbing of the season. They spanked the Cavs on Friday like they owned them.
"When we play like this, the sky is the limit for us," said point guard Rafer Alston. "The playoffs are a different thing, but if you can make the adjustments in a series -- and we have a versatile team -- you can make things happen."
It was Howard who gathered his Magic teammates for a players-only meeting on Thursday, letting everyone know it was time to start wearing their playoff faces, even if the playoffs still were two weeks away.
LeBron James and the Cavs, who were beaten Thursday night in Washington, looked like they were playing at half speed Friday by comparison.
"The meeting was good. We just talked about approaching the game with a little more seriousness. It's playoff time. We're a pretty loose team, but some of the foolishness, the goofiness we like, had to stop,'' Howard said. "And that's hard coming from a guy like me, who likes to smile. But it's time to sacrifice.''
The Cavs (61-15) are still a good bet for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but the Magic (56-19) have cast some doubts about how far the Cavs can go depending so heavily on James, even if he runs away with the MVP vote. Not since Michael Jordan in Chicago has a team won an NBA title relying so much on one individual player. The key to winning championships throughout this decade has been team balance -- the Spurs, Pistons, Celtics are perfect examples.
Yet the Cavs will go into the final days of the regular season with James averaging 10 points more than anyone else on the Cavs roster, a scoring gap that no NBA champion has had since Jordan and the Bulls in the '90s.
It was obvious early Friday that things would go sour for the Cavs. James was called for a technical foul just five minutes into the game after he objected to a foul called against him. Early in the third quarter, Howard swatted one of James' running jumpers back right back in his face. James at the other end went for immediate retaliation, but his block of Howard's shot drew only a goaltending call.
The Magic fans weren't kind to James, either. One carried a 3-foot high cardboard cutout with a picture of King James on one side, but as the game turned, so did the sign, which revealed a Queen James picture with the LeBron dressed in a skirt.
James and Howard, who won a gold medal together on the Olympic team this summer, had a playful pre-game shooting contest Friday -- from a ball rack at half- court shooting at opposing baskets. When Howard missed, James swished his shot. But that was his best shot of the night.
James managed 26 points, but he hit only seven of 20 shots. His help was hard to find. A bad game by James led to a real bad game for the Cavs. The Magic got 20 points and 11 rebounds from Howard, who is far too big and athletic for either Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Anderson Varejao to handle. And when the Cavs overplay Howard with help, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are too much from outside.
"We match-up very well with Cleveland,'' Howard said with a smile. "We'd like to see them again.''
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